Masterclasses with Aroma coffee at Ludlow Food Festival

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September 29th was apparently international coffee day, a day for people to celebrate their love for the dark liquid. I totally missed it as I do most of these ‘international’ days. There are so many of them we’d be celebrating something every week if we remembered them all. A couple of weeks ago the teen and I had our own coffee celebration at this years Ludlow Food Festival (there will be more on this in a future post) where we joined a coffee masterclass run by Andrew from Aroma tea and coffee merchants in Shrewsbury.

Both the teen and I love coffee, not the cheap instant stuff; proper, rich, creamy coffee.  But its something of a love/hate relationship. The teen has ADHD (caffeine + hyperactivity  = bad combination) and can’t tolerate too much, while I am somewhat sensitive to too much caffeine as well. If I drink it after three in the afternoon I can’t sleep at night. Generally speaking I am more of a tea addict, being raised in a typically British family where hot sweet tea was the solution to everything, it could cure any angst, shock, upset and always, in my granddad’s house, came in half pint mugs (his was often laced with whisky, which I have never succumbed too). Even with tea if I drink too much I find myself suffering a caffeine crash when it wears off. We anticipated that the effects of all this coffee tasting could be interesting!

Although I know the taste of good coffee and know what I like, I am no coffee expert. I was the perfect attentive student, wanting to understand and know more. The class was expertly run, fun and very informative and I soon learned the difference between Arabica and Robusta varieties; Arabica beans are longer in shape and a generally more desirable bean, while Robusta beans are wider and fatter and often considered the poor relation. I also learned that beans come from the pod or cherry, either ‘pea’ shaped or as two separate beans. I now know that beans from different countries and environments differ considerably; Columbian (high consistency of flavour), Kenyan (peaberry coffee, almost sweet, with lemony, citrus hints) and Indian beans  (high humidity, slow dry, lighter, smoother, richer coffee) and have their own distinct personality. We travelled through the process from bean to perfect roast in the search for the best cup of coffee, and imbibing plenty along the way.

We examined beans, discussed oil content, texture, shape and flavour. Andrew then tipped the beans (sourced from Cafe Feminino, an organisation which supports women working in the coffee trade) into the small roaster he’d set up in the marquee, heated to 200 degrees. The smell of roasting coffee, the caffeine hit we’d already had, made us feel slightly euphoric. I tried hard to concentrate but was beginning to feel the effects!

coffee beans, pure and unroasted

coffee beans, pure and unroasted

a 'peaberry' coffee bean

a ‘peaberry’ coffee bean

2 beans

Andrew showing us the Cafe Feminino beans

Andrew showing us the Cafe Feminino beans

More tasting next, we sampled different roasts of coffee and could easily distinguish the difference,  then we looked at different grinds and the best method to prepare them for drinking. Fine ground for Turkish style, coarser ground for Italian stove top pots and cafetierres. By now I had to cut my tasting to a sip for fear of bouncing around the tent like a drug crazed loon.

 

pouring the beans into the roaster

pouring the beans into the roaster

small roaster with drum for turning and cooling the beans once roasted

small roaster with drum for turning and cooling the beans once roasted

another small variety of roaster...this copper one is for using on the stove top

another small variety of roaster…this copper one is for using on the stove top

removing a sample to check the roast

removing a sample to check the roast

once the beans reach the desired level of roast they are released from the drum into the bottom container to cool

the beans are released into the bottom drum to cool once they reach the desired level of roast

demonstrating the different ways coffee can be prepared and how it affects the flavour...caffetiere coffee is very different to Italian style, Turkish, or filter

demonstrating the different ways coffee can be prepared and how it affects the flavour…caffetiere coffee is very different to Italian style, Turkish, or filter

I tried to keep writing notes but my eager concentration from earlier in the session had left me. As finished up and awaited our complimentary bag of coffee (mine coarse ground for my favoured preparation method and the teens roasted beans), we admitted we were caffeine-d out; dilated pupils, muddled brain, barely able to string a sentence together, all of it.

When I finally returned to some level of normality I realised I had taken it all in, I now had a greater understanding of the coffee-making process and the science behind it. So hopefully when I speak to the one or two coffee roasters I know locally I can sound vaguely knowledgable. I’m never going to make a high-class barista, but I’m content that I know a bit more about what I’m drinking.

the cool coffee beans being packaged for us to take home

the cool coffee beans being packaged for us to take home

teen looking very pleased with her special coffee beans

teen looking very pleased with her special coffee beans, if slightly dazed after the amount of caffeine consumed

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Robust venison goulash for an Autumn supper

food festival Ludlow 2014 276I know it hasn’t been particularly Autumnal of late, but as the nights start to draw in and the evenings are beginning to cool, I’ve found myself craving  the dishes I associate with this time of year. With back to school and work routines now in place I long for comfort food. Out go the summer salads, BBQ’s and light meals designed for hot evenings and in come roast dinners, casseroles and hearty flavoursome stews (although this weekend was perfect BBQ weather!).

The Autumn and winter months also herald the beginning of game season, and although these days Venison is available across the year it’s still associated with the hunting, shooting and fishing season, and this might be why it’s overlooked. It’s often seen as a bit expensive for ordinary folk and just for those ‘posh’ people who wear red jackets, riding hats and have an expansive wallet. There is also of course the emotional, “poor Bambi” reaction which I often hear from people,while others aren’t sure they would like the taste, thinking it’s too strongly flavoured.

Some of this fear of venison is related to previous experience. If it was a bad experience then the obvious reaction is to avoid, or perhaps it was nice first time round and the flavour was different the second time. Production methods and labelling were less consistent in the past, plus the label never distinguished between types of venison, red deer for example tastes different to fallow deer. These days however many local butchers and game specialists routinely stock venison, and opinion is slowly shifting. Why? because production methods have improved, the processing of wild venison is quicker, there are more deer farmers out there and in both cases improved methods produce meat with a more consistent flavour and quality.

Venison is so similar to beef the two are often confused but it differs in that it is leaner, has more protein, more iron and B vitamins making it a good health choice. Also, because wild deer lives on wild and pasture food there is a minimal fat content in the meat and what is there has higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid (a possible protector against heart disease and cancer). Because it is like beef it also cooks in a similar way. Steaks are best cooked fast on a high heat or a BBQ, while diced venison takes well to slow cooking and robust sauces. I used diced venison to make a rich Goulash, a family favourite. Its quick and easy to prepare and although it takes a long time to cook you can stick it in the oven and go do other things while you are waiting.

If you want to give venison a try, now is a great time. The deer have spent the summer feeding on wild food and pasture so the meat is top quality and not very expensive. I purchased my venison from my butcher (G Williams & Son in Bangor). It came pre-packed in a 500g tray and cost £4.00.

Venison Goulash:

Serves four as a lunch dish (served with some rye bread or similar) or 2-3 as a main course dinner with lightly steamed vegetables

1 tablespoon vegetable oil (plus a knob of butter)

500g diced venison

1 large onion finely sliced

2 cloves of garlic (chopped or crushed)

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon plain flour

350g fresh tomatoes chopped (or tinned in the winter months)

300ml beef stock

400g small potatoes, washed, peeled if necessary and chopped into chunks

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven gas mark 3/160 degrees C

Heat a large non-stick pan and add the oil. Add venison when its nice and hot and brown over a medium heat. Once browned tip into an oven proof casserole dish. Add the butter to the pan and tip in the sliced onion. Cook for about 15 minutes until starting to soften and change colour. Add the garlic, caraway, paprika and stir for a minute then sprinkle over the flour, add tomatoes and stock. Stir to combine and bring to a simmer then tip over the venison in the casserole dish.

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Pop on a lid and put in the oven for an hour. After an hour tip in the potatoes and cook in the oven for a further 30 mins.

Once the potatoes are tender serve with a glass of red wine (unless its lunch time and you have to work afterwards) and some hearty rye bread to mop up the sauce.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under British food, Butchers, family budget cooking, Game recipes, home cooking, local produce, Organic meat, Recipes, seasonal food

I’m back! …with two recipes from the Menai Seafood Festival: Scallops tartare and French Eel stew

Its been a long and busy summer. I know this because I haven’t written a thing on here since 9th June. Such a long time for me! So what have you been doing with yourself?I hear you ask. I’m sure some of you have followed my exploits through Twitter or Facebook so already know I’ve barely kept still, or stayed in one place for long.

I have fed crews at three festivals, cooked for five brides and grooms, been a private chef for a couple of dinners, and helped co-ordinate one food festival. I’ve also been busy fitting a new business premises ( I now have my very own kitchen and hopefully soon cookery school) and visited schools running seafood demo’s across Anglesey as part of the Menai Seafood Festival.

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In between all of that I’ve tried to have a life and spend time with my kids! It all sounds like hard work, but I can’t complain. Its fun work. Work I adore and I consider myself fortunate (if not rich) to be working at something I love and have a passion for.

Now that Autumn approaches and the whirlwind of activity is calming a little its back to those other things I love. Writing, food festivals and teaching. My mission for the winter is to find, beg, borrow, the finances I need to refit the cookery school and get it up and running. I will return to this in another post as it deserves a full explanation.

I also made a promise at the Menai Seafood Festival that I would post my two French themed seafood festival demo recipes. I stood in at the last-minute due to another chef dropping out. I said I wouldn’t because I was coordinating the two tents, but actually on the day it wasn’t that stressful and I’m so glad I did because it was such good fun!

 

So here to get you going and mark my return to writing are the two recipes of the day, sadly I have no pictures but all the testers gave the thumbs up! As you can see there were plenty in attendence.

Scallop tartare and French conger eel stew

I wanted to introduce visitors to a different way to prepare scallops and a new fish. In the case of the latter, conger eel is a little used fish which people often overlook. Daunted by the way it looks, full of preconceived ideas about how it will taste they don’t even consider it as an option. Many immediately think of jellied eels when you say eel and I could see plenty of the crowd watching my demo cringe when I said I was cooking eel. Several said they tried it and hated it. I’m always up for a challenge so my aim was to change their mind. Eel is not overfished, it is sustainable and it is cheap. Yes it has a large central bone, but its easy to remove the meat in neat chunks for a simple stew.

Scallops tartare with blue poppy seeds

Ingredients:
Dozen scallops
1 teaspoon blue poppy seeds
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
Drop of soy sauce
Sea salt

2 white plates to serve
Remove the coral from the scallops, we only want to use the white part. Slice and arrange in a rosette pattern on a plate. Zest the lime and make a dressing mixing the olive oil, soy sauce, lime zest, a teaspoon of lime juice and salt.
Baste scallops with the dressing and sprinkle with poppy seeds. Leave to stand for 5 minutes and then serve.

French eel stew (for two people)

Ingredients:

Eel (2k) killed, skinned cleaned and cut into chunks.
3 large shallots
12 baby onions
200g chestnut mushrooms
Bouquet garni
30g plain flour
30g butter
300ml fish stock
300ml red wine
12 small new potatoes
Seasoning

Flat leaf parsley to serve

Get your fish monger to skin and clean the eel. At home you can run a sharp knife along the central bone which is thick and gently cut the flesh away making sure you remove any of the remaining bones as you go. They are easy to find as eel bones are pretty big.

Melt the butter and brown sliced shallots. Add flour, then fish stock followed by the red wine. Add bouquet garni, onions, mushrooms and halved potatoes. Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until the potatoes begin to cook through. Add the chunks of eel and simmer for a further 10 minutes until the potatoes are tender and the eel cooked through. Season well and serve sprinkled with plenty of chopped flat leaf parsley.

A big thank you to Wayne at Mermaid Seafoods for supplying produce for the demo tents and indulging my demand for conger eel

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Filed under festival food, Food festival, French food, home cooking, local produce, Recipes, Seafood recipes, sustainable fish, Uncategorized, Welsh produce

One for midweek..Moroccan lamb and spinach balls with harissa tomato sauce (couscous and minty yogurt)

Sometimes my decision-making skills seem distinctly lacking. There are times when I endlessly dither over the tiniest details, instead of going with my instincts, until I drive myself (and others mad) with my inability to make up my mind. I know it’s an infuriating trait and its so stupid when I can make monumental life changing decisions, big business choices,  but can’t decide if I want meatballs for dinner or something with some Moroccan spice.

I hope for divine inspiration, umm and ah for a while, running ideas by the boy who seems impressed and so we eventually come up with Moroccan spiced meatballs. Throw in some fresh spinach (which I have in good supply now my local veg box is running again) and there. How easy was that?

A family feast ...Moroccan lamb and spinach balls, couscous and minty yogurt

A family feast …Moroccan lamb and spinach balls, couscous and minty yogurt

Moroccan lamb and spinach balls, harissa tomato sauce (couscous and yogurt with mint): recipe for up to four (although Aidan and I were very hungry after our Sunday run so ate three-quarters of them!)

For the meatballs:

500g lamb mince

100g finely chopped spinach

clove garlic finely minced

2 teaspoons ras al hanout

1 teaspoon cumin

1 egg beaten

zest of 1 lemon

salt and pepper

1 tablespoon oil to fry

For the sauce:

small red onion finely chopped

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

1 teaspoon harissa

150ml chicken stock

one dessertspoonful sun-dried tomato paste

salt/ pepper and a pinch of sugar if the sauce seems a bit tart (tinned tomatoes are often quite acidic)

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Mix the lamb, spinach, spices, garlic, seasonings, lemon zest and egg in a large bowl. Use your hands to knead it all together so the spices are completely distributed. Form into bite size balls.

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Heat the oil in a large pan. Add the lamb balls and fry over a medium heat until nicely brown all over. Remove and keep to one side. Add a little more olive oil if necessary (you will probably find that enough oil remains) and turn the heat down a bit. Add the onion and garlic and sweat gently for about five to ten minutes. Add the tomatoes, harissa, tomato paste and stock and turn the heat up again. Bring to a gentle simmer and return the balls to the pan cooking gently for about 25 minutes, or until the sauce has cooked down and thickened. Check the seasoning adding salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar if the tomatoes are a bit acidic.

Serve with couscous (try Yotam Ottolenghi’s Green Couscous from his book Plenty it’s an absolute favourite…or make a variation as I did below..

Serves 4

150g couscous
160ml vegetable stock
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper
sml tsp ground cumin
3 spring onions, finely sliced
30g rocket, chopped

juice of half a lemon
handful of coriander finely chopped

Place the couscous in a large shallow dish and cover with the stock. Cover the dish with cling film and leave for 10 minutes or so.

Meanwhile, fry the onion in olive oil on a medium heat until golden and completely soft. Add the salt and cumin, and mix well leaving to fry for a minute. Stir onion mixture into the couscous, fluffing up the grains with a fork as you go. Add the remaining ingredients mixing together well.

To finish mix a handful of finely chopped mint into a small bowl of Rachel’s low-fat natural yogurt with a pinch of sea salt.

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Filed under family budget cooking, home cooking, local produce, middle eastern food, Recipes, salads, seasonal food

The sensory pleasure of Bristol

I visited Bristol once for an interview at the university. This was years ago when I was still an academic researcher, searching for a highly sought after PhD place just before I had kids. Despite seeing little of the city I liked the feel of the place; it had a nice vibe and the people were friendly.  I didn’t get the PhD place so never discovered more and was just left with that brief first impression.

Last year the teen started visiting Bristol. She too fell in love with its hippy vibe, its cool vintage shops, eclectic night life and variety of festival loving people. She fitted right in. I promised myself a return visit to see for myself exactly what it was she had fallen in love with, and as several of my ‘Green Man’ crew friends live there (one of whom just a couple of weeks away from having her first baby) I took the opportunity on a rare weekend off work.

It didn’t take me long to fall in love all over again. Precisely half an hour I’d say. As soon as I sat down in the sun outside The Bristolian with a late lunch I knew I didn’t want to go home. One of the friends with whom I stayed lives in Montpelier, arguably the most vibrant, up and coming part of the city where everyone is hip, cool and arty. Essential accessories include a guitar, a skateboard and a beard (although not if you are a woman of course…save that for Eurovision).

I felt at home among the vintage shops, graffiti adorned walls and independent cafes and shops. The share and recycle culture is clear. Just up the road from my friend’s house is the street where locals rioted in protest at a Tesco moving in. I’d probably have been one of them if I lived there. Sadly it didn’t stop the multinational opening shop, but they did make their point loud and clear.

Imagine the slightly stoned crowd of a festival, transplant it back in a city and there you have Bristol. Ok so I happened to visit on a particularly sun drenched weekend, this probably helped, and the Rave On Avon music festival (we went to see a band playing as part of the festival, the Bombs with their soulful, funky trip hop tinged with a bit of rock) was in full swing, but it seems to me that every weekend has a festival of some kind happening just down the road, plus there is street art everywhere, so many local food producers, purveyors and markets, cool community owned and run venues like The Canteen where we watched the Bombs and music hanging in the air. They even have their own currency!! Bristol is a city of sensory overload, but not in the 100-miles-an-hour London kind of way, of community, of recycling…..I could go on but I’ll tell you what, feast your eyes on the pictures instead…they will show you exactly why I love Bristol!

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Thali cafe at the Tobacco Factory Produce market

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Local produce and street art at the Tobacco Factory

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Eli enjoying a gigantic cheese straw

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More Love at the Old Police Station

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Aren’t we all 🙂

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Say No to Monsanto…mural at Stokes Croft

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Filed under British food, Food travel, local produce, photography, reviews, travel

Daily post video, Bodnant Cookery school and a recipe for mussels with cider, leeks and chorizo

Bodnant Welsh Food

Once more in the press, this time the North Wales Daily Post website. A couple of weeks ago I and a number of other local chefs spent a slightly nerve-wracking, but fun morning making a series of 3 minute recipe videos in our role as Bodnant Cookery School tutors. I cooked up a really simple dish of Menai mussels with chorizo, leeks and Welsh Cider which you can watch here and grab the recipe for yourself.

The spec was to create super quick dishes that demonstrated the kind of things we would be teaching in our classes as well as show casing our talents. My general ethos on life is to share and teach. In my classes I aim to teach skills to home cooks, or those wanting to become better home cooks and who perhaps want to learn a few tricks of the chef trade. I’m not a Michelin star chef and that is my strength. Although I trained as a chef I have spent many years as a home-cook so I have learnt to improvise and do it my way and not be constrained by the way it ‘should’ be done……but for all that I know how food works and what goes together well.

My first course at Bodnant was yesterday. A fully booked event exploring different flavours, spices and techniques in my easy to follow ‘One pot wonders’ session. Hands on, relaxed and good fun. Everyone got to make their own dishes, then take them home for tea…including me!

My next session is on NEXT SATURDAY ( 3rd May) where I will be showing participants how to make creative marinades for their home BBQ plus a few inspiring accompaniments. There are still spaces so check the website for more details.

After this courses are fairly frequent, the next being Saturday 10th May (fresh local fish) click here for more information and to book, then Saturday 24th May (all things asparagus), again see the website for more details and check out the Daily Post website for videos showcasing the other courses and tutors.

Bodnant Welsh Food

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Filed under British food, cookery courses, in the press, local produce, Recipes, Welsh produce

Guest post: going plastic free for Lent

This is an unusual foray for me, into the realms of ‘guest posts’….its not something I tend to do. My blog is for me, its my journal and a chance to share my food experiences but with this post I have made a special exception for my friend who I asked to write about her attempts to give up plastic for lent.

I bumped into her in the supermarket on day one of her attempt and we chatted about the issue of over packaging. I have taken drastic steps on occassion, tearing off unneccesary packaging and leaving it at the checkout…but this doesn’t deal with the issue that it will be thrown away. If not in my house, then at the supermarket. Vashti’s experiences mirror those of many working parents battling their personal ethical dilemmas with the demands of young children, work, time constraints and wishing to avoid the supermarket but feeling inevitably drawn there through the lure of convenience.

Vashti’s story highlights a need to tackle supermarket over packaging, it is a challenge they should be finding solutions to. There are plenty of alternatives…compostable cellulose and paper bags are just two alternatives. I use them and I run a very small business…surely they can afford to make the chnage?

*******************

Vashti Zarach is a mother, storywriter and librarian. She spends her days dashing around after two lively small children, supporting Bangor University’s College of Natural Sciences with library and information hunting skills, and attempting to do a bit of story writing during the fleeting moments when the baby is actually asleep.

The plastic free challenge
Earlier this year, I read a book called Seasick by Alanna Mitchell, about the terrible impact human activities are having on the world’s oceans, so when we decided to do a display on Junk at my workplace (a university science library), I was keen to do a section about marine litter. In addition to preparing information posters featuring photographs of litter on local beaches, and making a display of toy sea animals on a miniature beach strewn with rubbish, I contacted the Marine Conservation Society to ask for some leaflets about their work. They kindly sent the requested items, and asked whether I would like to join in with a challenge originally devised by Sea Champion Emily Smith to live plastic free for Lent. During my research into marine litter, I had been shocked to discover how much plastic ends up in the sea, harming marine creatures and taking hundreds of years to break down, so I was instantly keen to participate.

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The day before Lent began, I took my children to play on a local beach, where we once again marvelled at the sight of plastic crisp bags and other human debris thoughtlessly scattered on the sand. On the way home, we passed Waitrose, so I decided to begin the challenge there.
This first shopping trip was a huge eye opener. I am a vegetarian, and frequently opt for organic, UK grown, or fair trade food, but have never considered packaging issues when shopping. I was amazed how much our choices were restricted, and surprised to find only plastic bags available for gathering loose fruit and veg (my son and I collected loose items and put them straight into the trolley).

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We were unable to find many plastic-free options in the dairy section, until we discovered cheese in wax, and decided to allow butter to be an exception to the challenge (wax paper is not recyclable, nor is it biodegradable due to petroleum). We chose unwrapped bread, boxes of eggs, and various glass jars of chutneys and jams, and made the initial mistake of selecting cakes in cardboard boxes (forgetting that they were wrapped in plastic inside the boxes).
Waitrose staff were very amenable, and weighed loose shopping at the counter without complaints. We bought reusable canvas shopping bags, and my shopping was cheaper than normal, as so many of the things I would usually buy were wrapped in plastic.
We were unable to find nappies which passed muster at the supermarket, or any loose potatoes, so stopped at Dimensions, a health food shop in Upper Bangor, on the way home, where we found biodegradable nappies, loose potatoes, and even bamboo toothbrushes. However, in order to best dispose of the biodegradable nappies, I realised I would need to begin composting. Plastic free shopping is a gateway leading into a whole new world of waste reduction practices.
Over the next few weeks, we continued with the mission. I accidentally broke my challenge in the first week a few times, for example buying birthday cards (why are they all individually wrapped in plastic?) and accidentally buying a bottle from the drinks machine at work (it’s amazing how differently you feel about a bottled drink when you are aware that it takes 450 years to decompose). My husband complained that our son, who had been accompanying me on shopping trips and learning alongside me, was refusing to let him buy anything wrapped in plastic packaging.

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caught out! Snapped at the drinks machine breaking my rule

We enjoyed our plastic-free shopping trips very much – the canvas bags full of loose veg, artisan cheese, and unwrapped loaves looked wholesome, tasted delicious and made us feel that in a small way we were helping to look after our environment.
The most difficult aspect of the challenge was feeding myself and my family when on the move. I found myself bemoaning the UK’s lack of a street food culture, leaving busy people dependant on plastic-wrapped takeaway sandwiches and drink bottles. Oddly enough, the only other place I have seen street food mentioned recently was here on Denise’s blog. I mostly managed by carrying breadboards and knives with me, and slicing up fresh bread and cheese to make sandwiches on the go (I know some parents make packed lunches, I have just never been that well organized!).
I fully intended to buy local fruit and vegetables from markets, rather than depending on supermarkets. Due to my busy schedule, I never managed to do this in the initial weeks of the challenge, so this is something I ought to explore further in the future.
After a few weeks, I cracked, and bought some Bad Plastic Wrapped Food. I have two very young children and a hungry husband, I work part time, and was tired and fancied a week with some easy-cook staples such as pasta and frozen food. I was also missing my usual organic vegetables, which were only available in plastic wrapping (as is often the case when trying to shop ethically, there are often all kinds of different considerations to balance out). And we’d run out of toilet rolls.
So, is that it? Do I intend to return to my normal shopping habits, selecting food without giving any thought to the eventual destination of any non-biodegradable packaging? Or am I happy to live on a restricted, plastic-free diet, feeling an inner glow at the thought of all the small sea creatures spared from environments full of trash by my virtuous behaviour? Well, I hope to aim for a balance, avoiding plastic packaging as much as possible, but having occasional plastic splurges to top up on staples and treats.
I recommend reading up on the impacts of your consumer packaging choices, and giving plastic free shopping a try. You’ll discover new foods, your shopping may cost less (I saved money), and the starfish and sea urchins and sandy beaches of our beautiful planet can only benefit. Many individuals add up to giant waves, we can make an impact together.

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Filed under environmental issues, Uncategorized, waste reduction

French onion soup with a bit of oomph!

Supper club and food Burmese 2014 011

Yes I know, I slightly burnt my toast…but it didn’t matter with all that Gruyere and once it has soaked into the soup…anyway they were my last slices of bread!

I’m fast becoming the queen of soup! What with running pop-up soup kitchens at festivals and events, making soup for lunches (The Green Man crew love their lunch time soup) and quite a lot of soup recipes under my belt, I guess I have to admit, I really like soup. And so do the kids which is an important factor in the equation. If the kids will eat it, its quick, nutritious and tasty it’s on my menu list.

French onion soup is an absolute favourite but for the past few years I’ve avoided making it. This is of course because the kids won’t eat it, but now things are changing. The teen has discovered she likes onions and the boy will eat almost anything these days so I’ve joyfully rediscovered this glorious decadent,  peasant dish.

I’m not sure  ‘glorious’  ‘decadent’ and ‘peasant’ should go together in the same sentence. For all the fancy ingredients and recipes out there its the old ones, the ones made by the poorest, with the fewest ingredients that satisfy the most. The basis of this soup is just onion and stock, but I’ve chucked in a bit of butter, vermouth and some Gruyère which but takes this recipe from its firmly peasant origins to something quite luxurious.

Recipes for French onion soup vary from cook to cook but at its base is a simple formula; slowly cooked and lightly caramelised onions, good quality beef stock, wine and finished with a cheesy topped crouton. Inevitably chefs add their own touch, Felicity Cloake follows Anthony Bourdains lead adding balsamic vinegar plus a splash of brandy, the latter I approve of strongly (I usually add a dash of cognac to mine) but as the soup already has a sweetly savoury flavour, the vinegar adds little in my opinion. Delia Smith adds sugar to her French onion to help the onions caramelise. She recommends cooking in a very hot casserole, stirring until the edges turn dark, which should take all of 6 minutes! The cooking time is a huge underestimation, while sugar is wholly unneccessary because the onions are sweet enough to caramlise. As to the high heat, well slow is best, probably around 30 minutes slowly.

Another pet hate is adding flour to soup which both Nigel Slater and Raymond Blanc do. Having often made soup for friends with a range of allergies and dietary issues, I like to keep mine gluten-free and I don’t feel it lacks depth for doing so.

Like Delia I like to add a bit of garlic and as Felicity does, a bit of thyme. I would guess that these are fairly authentic additions so I don’t feel like I’m straying too far from the peasant origins.

The choice of stock is a hard one if you are vegetarian. Most of the recipes I’ve come across favour beef stock for its richness, although there are those that use chicken stock. The most important thing is that its good stock. Even if you choose to use a vegetable stock use one of those stock pots and not powdered varieties, they are a cut above and used by chefs, so that has to say something.  I wouldn’t recommend the Raymond Blanc approach to just use water. Having given it a go once I can vouch that it produces a fairly insipid soup and I prefer something with big banging flavours. The beef stock certainly gives it that.

Alcohol is crucial. Most chefs stick to dry white wine although Felicity uses cider, which is an option. I would go with the wine option, although once when I had no wine and couldn’t be bothered to go to the shop I tried it out with dry vermouth (my usual addition to any risotto) which is after all begins life as wine and to my relief it worked well, adding a somewhat deeper, heavier flavour. I balanced it by using slightly less than recipes using wine ask for, but it was a perfectly adequate substitution working along with so many other intense flavours. I rather liked it.

The other essential to component to a French onion soup is the cheese topped crouton. I wouldn’t argue with any recipe that calls for toasted baton, rubbed with a clove of garlic and topped with Gruyère. No substitutions will suffice, although the night I made my soup I was using house leftovers (as usual) and only had a crusty loaf from which I cut thick slices toasted them and cut them in half.

Of course as I already mentioned I also favour the addition of Cognac at the end, as does Lindsey Bareham and Simon Hopkinson in The Prawn Cocktail Years. It adds that last bit of oomph that the original peasant version may well have lacked.

French onion soup recipe: Serves four.

800g white onions

50g butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 fat cloves garlic finely chopped

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

250ml vermouth (or 300ml white wine)

700ml beef stock

salt and pepper to taste

A glug of cognac

8 slices from a baguette

a clove of garlic

about 100g Gruyère, grated.

Peel and thinly slice the onions. Peel and finely chop the garlic.

Add the butter and olive oil to a large saucepan and when melted and just beginning to bubble add the onions. Allow to cook gently (for about 30 minutes) until very soft. Add the garlic and thyme and keep cooking, stirring occasionally so they don’t burn. Cook until a nice golden caramel colour. They will begin to stick to the bottom a bit at this point but keep stirring until they turn a nice golden brown.

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Add the vermouth and stir scraping any stuck bits off the bottom of the pan then add the stock. Allow to cook on a low heat for about 50 minutes to an hour.

Meanwhile, toast the baguette on both sides then rub with the garlic clove. Grate the cheese.

When cooked add the glug of cognac and taste for seasoning. Ladle into warm heatproof bowls, top with the croutons and sprinkle over the cheese. Place under the grill until the cheese begins to melt then serve.

 

 

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I lost my heart to Portmeirion…my favourite place in North Wales

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First let me say this is not a food post, although  my reasons for visiting Portmeirion were food related. The intention was to go with my friend Sunnie on a fact-finding mission and to do a bit of PR for her dairy free toffee and chocolate (her brand is Toffi Toffee) at the Blas ar Fwyd trade show. As one of my primary Welsh produce suppliers it was a ‘business trip’ that soon became something more pleasurable.

For those not familiar with Portmeirion it was created by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. A passionate conservationist and devoted to the protection and preservation rural Wales, and the landscape in general. Williams-Ellis began building the Italianate village of Portmeirion in the 1920’s. Purchased for £20,000 in 1925 he described it as

 “a neglected wilderness – long abandoned by those romantics who had realised the unique appeal and possibilities of this favoured promontory but who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping…into sorrowful bankruptcy.” 

He then changed its original name, AberIâ (Glacial Estuary) toPortmeirion: Port because of the coastal location andMeirion as this is Welsh for Merioneth, the county in which it lay (quote and history taken from thePortmeirion website) and began to map out his plans. Over the next 50 years he lovingly constructed what is now an absolute romantics dream. His original insights into its unique appeal were spot on, but he avoided stumbling into the same bankrupcy trap as other speculators through careful planning, salvage, the collection of artifacts and later on donations from other architects or salvagers. His plans were workable and with his eye for recycling, conservation and salvage he created what he called

“a home for fallen buildings”

I love that! and maybe that is a reason i’m so drawn to the place (maybe its the perfect home for fallen women?) Its eclectic, unusual, recycled, thrown together but in the most achingly beautiful way.

The first thing that grabs you as you enter the village is it fantasy like architecture; all sensual curves, nymphs on plinths, ethereal looking statues of women in flowing robes, Grecian pillars aplenty and everything doused in a rainbow swathe of warm Mediterranean colours. It immediately reminds me of sunny holidays, transporting me back to Italy and grape picking in the sun, and confusing me into believing I’ve been transported to somewhere more exotic. Anyone could be forgiven for forgetting they were in Wales.

Then there are the grounds; From the almost tropical sculpted gardens (Portmeirion seems to have its own little microclimate of sun and wellbeing), 1920’s style lido’s, secret woods and stunning views over the estuary you couldn’t fail to fall in love. With the place and whoever you are with. On the day we visited the spring flowers were in full bloom; a magnolia spilling petals over a carpet of daffodils, with the sea as a back drop.

I’ve had more than one romantic encounter with Portmeirion and its no secret that I spent my first date with my (now ex) husband there.  Since we spent twenty years together and had two beautiful children my memories are not sad, but joyful that it marked the beginning of something special.

If this isn’t enough to entice you, Portmeirion is also that place where they filmed the 1960’s cult classic The Prisoner . Surreal, intriguing and the inspiration for many searching questions back in the day…what does it all mean? The series remains a cult and has its own fan club ‘Six of One’ and I’m sure some of the questions about control still resonate.

I revisit regularly. It’s that kind of place; once bitten forever smitten and all that and I find myself drawn back again and again (In the past six months I have attended Festival No.6, which is held there in September. I also returned to do a food demonstration at the Christmas Food and Drink Festival in December and now, as the weather slowly improves again last week.

Portmeirion is open throughout the year;

Ticket prices can be found here but are reduced during the winter months. Reduced prices can be found here

You can also buy an annual pass

Under 5’s go free and no dog’s are allowed on the site

The site has a range of other attractions (if the beauty of the place is not enough!!) including gift shops and cafe’s. There are two fantastic restaurants on the site, the brasserie in Castell Deudraeth which I have eaten in on previous visits and loved and the highly acclaimed Hotel Portmeirion  which much to my shame I have never managed to eat in.

If you wanted to extend your stay there are hotel rooms in Castell Deudraeth, The Hotel Portmeirion or you can book to stay in one of the self-catering cottages within the village itself. I’ve always promised myself that I will, one day, but have never quite got round to it (or to be fair been able to afford it!)

Their website also has many special offers, especially in the off-season. They are currently advertising Spring Afternoon Tea Breaks

To contact Portmeirion about any of these offers or for further information its best to go to their website here

Come and visit, I promise you its wroth it…but you might never want to leave!

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MSN food: twice in one month!

I’m really not very good at taking compliments. I have this irritating tendency to get flustered when people greet me with praise. I look for the nearest thing to hide behind, embarrassed, not quite knowing what to do with myself and turning a lovely shade of scarlet (not the most becoming colour). Despite this I am unbelievably proud of my supper club and how well its done. Despite my squirming-at-praise tendencies, like most people I like being recognised for my hard work and achievements (as long as its not too public!!). This is probably why I prefer being safely hidden behind the camera and not standing in front of it. It’s a case of thank you for recognising my work and talents, but please don’t make a big deal of it (as well as being horribly unphotogenic and terribly vain!)

I’m quite at home with my strange, psychological insecurities (in which I’m sure I’m not alone). I always doubt myself, find fault, waiting to fuck up. My second chef Mark summed it up when he announced to his students (that I was mentoring and giving a talk to) that I was a highly strung perfectionist. I wasn’t sure whether to take issue with the highly strung bit, but I guess he is correct in some ways, but then aren’t all chefs?

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This month I have received not one, but two nice little accolades from MSN. The first  was a MSN food review of Britain’s Best Home pop-ups.  I am now not only listed among the pioneers of the supper club scene (I started in 2009) but one of the stalwarts since I’m one of few that are still running since the early days. My formula has changed little; I have a laid back and intimate style with sometimes quite simple grub, while at other times it can be wildly experimental. With the former style in mind, it was with pleasure that I contributed to MSN again, this time as an ‘expert’ in my new role as a freelance tutor at Bodnant Cookery School. Contributing simple ideas for cooking, guidance on what to choose and recipes for Welsh lamb. Check out the article here.

Roast lamb (© Sainsbury's)

Image from Sainsbury’s courtesy of MSN

And now i’m off to cook for tonight’s Earth Hour Supper Club…see you on the other side!

 

 

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